- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

BEIJING — Earlier in the night, the hopes of the United States 4x100 men’s relay team were dashed when Tyson Gay said he reached back for the baton and “there was nothing.”

Jeremy Wariner knows the feeling.

Coming around the turn in Thursday’s 400 meters and still in contention to repeat as gold medalist, Wariner started to make his move, and there was nothing.

His closing kick had disappeared.

His competition kept pulling away.

And Wariner’s hopes of repeating perished as he reached the finish line in second place behind Virginia native LaShawn Merritt and just ahead of diving teammate David Neville.

“LaShawn ran a better race than me,” Wariner said. “I felt good through the first 200 and came off the turn and felt good. When I tried to make my move, it wasn’t there.”

The U.S. relay teams couldn’t execute the literal baton exchange (both teams failed to make the final), and the figurative passing of the baton and/or torch happened on-track after Merritt beat Wariner.

After years of chasing Wariner, Merritt is now the class of the 400 field.

It’s time for Wariner, who also has two world championship wins, to do the chasing.

And it could be difficult. Wariner, the world’s top-ranked 400 runner for four straight years, has competed in many races in his career (he’ll run the 4x400 relay this weekend) and a switch from college coach Clyde Hart to Michael Ford is bound to be second-guessed. Wariner’s dominance has ended, but can he answer Merritt’s challenge? The next two to three years will tell.

Merritt can relate to Wariner’s new position. Since coming onto the international scene, his resume has been full of runner-up finishes: 2007 world championships. 2007 U.S. Nationals. 2006 U.S. Nationals. 2006 U.S. Indoors.

But Merritt broke through twice this year, including the U.S. trials. The victory served as a springboard to China.

“I came here feeling better than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I believed I could do it, and that’s the first step of winning.”

However, his technique could have gotten in his way. Before analyzing each of his opponents’ possible race strategies, Merritt watched his semifinal race. His choppy steps didn’t suit his 6-foot-2 frame. He thought he could stretch out.

He then he watched 6-foot-5 Usain Bolt’s world-record performance in the 200, and he knew he could stretch out his stride.

“My steps were little and short, and I learned something from Bolt running his 19.3,” Merritt said. “At his size, he really opened up coming down the homestretch. I used to run that way back in high school before I started to get all technical. I told myself I would come here, open it up and let it fly.”

Merritt’s high school career in southeast Virginia - he was born in Portsmouth and lives in Suffolk - started after his brother Antwan died in a car accident.

“He wasn’t around to see me run track at all,” he said. “He would have definitely been proud of me. I told him before the race to guide me and give me strength to finish out the race I know I can run. … And I used what I had.”

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